George Town, Penang

Wednesday 4 July 2001 – George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Awoke late at 8.30am. Went for a walk to check out alternative accommodation. The first hotel I saw had no rooms at all available tonight, or so they said (hard to believe). The second hotel, the Hotel Malaysia, where I’d seen the special offer, said those rooms were only available after noon. I had a look in a room anyway – they were much nicer than the Waldorf, a proper hotel in the International style, with central air-conditioning, and after a short walk to consider, decided that I’d pay the full price, still a bargain at RM80 anyway.

Temple or Clan House, George Town, Penang
Temple or Clan House, George Town, Penang

On returning to the hotel’s reception counter, I was given the ‘special’ rate of RM69 anyway. I checked in immediately. Next I arranged my bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur for tomorrow, then set off to explore Georgetown. It’s a grotty, chaotic mess of a city. There are a few reasonable neoclassical and Georgian colonial buildings, but these are often obscured by hideous modern erections.

Monks in George Town, Penang
Monks in George Town, Penang

The city museum proved to be wonderful, celebrating the ethnic diversity and history of Penang – a marked contrast to the jingoistic nonsense spouted in the Malacca Son et Lumiere and the paranoid fundamentalism of its Islamic museum. The modern building housing the city library and contemporary art gallery was all but inaccessible due to a queue of people waiting for job interviews. Reaching the gallery entailed following a guard through a closed gate, up several forbidding flights of stairs and through closed doors. It was as though they didn’t actually want any visitors. The gallery, when reached, consisted of a room of indifferent and derivative, although nevertheless uniquely Asian, paintings.

A walk through the streets of Chinatown and Little India was an experience even more testing than Malacca, there being no footpaths, plenty of dust and heat and traffic, rewarded with plenty of mosques and temples. I was particularly impressed by the bicycles here, ancient heroic Raleighs leaning on every five-foot-way. There seem to be even more here than in Malacca, and many of them have been customised with racks, trailers, hawker carts and fittings to allow every imaginable kind of load to be carried.

The people of Penang (the Malays at least) don’t like making change. I was regularly asked for ‘small change’ when tendering notes of quite small denominations. At a foodcourt in the main shopping centre, in the Komtar building, took this to extremes and avoided the stallholders having to handle the money at all. One had to work out what one wanted and what it cost (drinks, appetisers, meals, whatever), purchase vouchers for the amount you need, take them to your chosen stall, order your meal and give the stallholder the voucher. Nothing could be easier, and the customer is rarely right in Malaysia.

On top of Penang Hill
On top of Penang Hill

I caught a bus to Ayer Itam, searching for the funicular railway up Penang Hill, but wound up at the huge Kok Lek Si temple, quite vast, and really a series of temples and arcades set up the hill. After a walk, somewhat longer than the 10 minutes indicated in the Lonely Planet, I found the Penang Hill railway station.

Kok Lek Si Temple, Penang
Kok Lek Si Temple, Penang

The ratchet railway took half an hour up and down, but on top at 600 metres above sea level the temperature was very pleasant. I could well understand why the colonials were so attached to their hill stations. There are several impressive ones, surrounded by familiar, non-tropical looking gardens of azaleas, rhododendrons and hydrangeas.

Back at the hotel, I arranged accommodation in KL. Tried to call on my mobile, which had access through Singtel international roaming. Unfortunately they had not given me instructions on how to make calls so I couldn’t get it to work properly. Had dinner again at MonSoon. The menu was limited, but infinitely preferable to eating in the nearest gutter or open sewer at any of the hawker stalls, which seemed to be the other option nearby. The meal included a very hot red curry of beef, and the music was soul greats – Marvin, Smokey and Aretha. Great.

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